The increasingly challenging environment we live in of elevated expectations, the ‘always-on’ culture and more recently, the global pandemic, have blurred the lines between work and life.
Many argue that we shouldn’t use the word ‘balance’ because it suggests a happy equilibrium or a set of scales with equal weights, neither of which conjure up an image of what is achievable in the current day-to-day. Still, we know that long working hours can hurt cardiovascular health, mental health and materially lower our IQ and it is vital that we all consider learning how to manage work/life ‘balance’.
So, where should you start? A good place is to set a realistic goal. We are not talking about something huge here – for example, maybe you would currently rate your work/life balance a 4 out of 10 and the question is, ‘what goal could you set yourself to get you to a 5?’
In thinking about your goal, we encourage you to avoid the comparison game often exaggerated by social media. Instead, think about your life situations, family, type of role, support network, and personal needs. Whilst eventually you may need to involve your family, close network outside of work, your boss or close colleagues, for now, this is about the unique, the individual, you.
Be careful not to make your goal picture-perfect – be flexible with it – the balance between work and life is dynamic. It’s likely to shift day to day, maybe even hour to hour, depending upon your situation. So, we encourage you to set goals and measure your satisfaction. To measure ‘full on’ weeks at work against weeks where the balance favours family life, we encourage you to measure satisfaction over time rather than week by week.
One way of establishing your goal might be to consider your life’s different areas in a bit more detail. It’s not just about work vs life but also the various aspects of life, such as personal development, health, friendships, family, spiritual, community, career development, to name just some. To feel happy and fulfilled, you may want to give these areas different attention levels at varying times in your life. Thinking first about what these other areas or categories are for you. Then figure out what level of attention would make you happy and fulfilled in each. Finally, check this against the actual level of engagement you are giving that area right now. Going through this process can be a beneficial exercise to bring what’s essential for you into focus.
We call this sort of exercise a ‘balance wheel’ (based on a concept created by Paul J. Meyer, founder of Success Motivation® Institute, Inc). Here’s an example version:
We have used this model many times and suggest that you draw it out twice to show your future ideal and current reality. The gaps will show where you might need to recalibrate.
Focusing attention can also mean knowing what to let go of, and high achievers can find this particularly hard to do. Can’t you have it all? Well, maybe you can, but probably not all at the same time. You might need to spread out your goals, work out your priorities and let go of the non-priorities, at least temporarily.
We encourage you to consider Steven Covey’s message below and find what your big rocks are for the next 6-12 months. These are the things you want to achieve for yourself, your family, your career, so you can actively commit to them and prioritise them above all other things.
Stephen Covey, in his book ‘First Things First’ explains the concept of ‘Big Rocks’ to work out what to prioritise. He tells this story:
An expert on the subject of time management was lecturing to a group of business school students, and to drive home a point he used an illustration those students will probably never forget.
Standing in front of a classroom filled with self-motivated over-achievers, he pulled out a one-gallon, wide-mouthed Mason jar and set it on a table. Then he produced a half-dozen fist-sized rocks and carefully placed them, one at a time, into the jar.
When the jar was filled to the top and no more rocks would fit, he asked, “Is this jar full?”
Everyone in the class said, “Yes.”
He said, “Really?”
He then reached under the table and pulled out a sack of gravel. He slowly began dumping the gravel in, pausing to shake the jar as he did so the gravel could work itself down into the spaces between the big rocks. Then he smiled and asked the group once more, “Is the jar full?”
Some of the class were starting to catch on. “Probably not,” one of them called out.
“Good!” he replied. Next, he reached under the table and brought out a bag of sand. He started shaking the sand in, and it sifted down into all the spaces left between the rocks and the gravel. Once more he asked the question, “Now is the jar full?”
“No!” the class shouted.
“Excellent!” he said, and finally he grabbed the pitcher of drinking water off the desk and began to pour it in, until the jar was filled to the brim.
Then he looked up at the class and asked, “What is the point of this illustration?”
One eager student raised his hand and said, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things into it!”
“Nice try,” the speaker replied, “but that’s not really the point at all. The truth this little Mason jar illustration teaches us is simple but powerful: If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.”
If you have chosen your rocks well, they will be what count and what will ensure that you are successful, fulfilled, and happy. Don’t let the gravel distract you or sand suck you in – before you know it, these fill up your jar, sap your energy, and steal space from the things that are important to you.
Now that you are more focused and know your priorities, you are half–way there. Next comes the tactics to use every day. Setting boundaries between work and life creates a reinforcing relationship whereby improving the quality of one enhances the other.
Here’s What We Suggest
- If you work from home, you may not benefit from the ‘psychological detachment’ that a commute can provide from work, symbolising a hard line between your work and home life. Try replicating this with a new ‘end of day ritual’ such as a walk, a shower or a run.
- Commit ‘out loud’ to others – it helps to crystalise thoughts and allows them to remind you gently (or shut your laptop on your fingers at 9pm when you’re still working).
- Multitasking has its benefits, but when it comes to mental and physical recharging, the best result comes from getting in the zone. Be resourceful at what you do to manage your energy and be selfish at giving yourself time to do so.
- Just as you have a work to-do list and aims for the day or week, set yourself some for home, including a finish time for the workday that will allow you to achieve these.
- When you’re working from home and you don’t have a separate office, when it comes to the end of the workday, hide as much evidence of your work environment as you can – screens, notebooks, charts etc. so that they aren’t a constant reminder when you are trying to relax.
- Try having two phones so that on non-workdays, your phone cannot tempt you into answering work messages.
Protecting Quality Time
- Book chunks of time in your outlook diary for your work, so people don’t interrupt your thinking time.
- Turn off email alerts after a specific time – you can even schedule this in advance.
- Ask others to contact you on WhatsApp, not email, for critical issues, so you don’t feel too out of the loop when signing off.
- Use ‘Out of Office’ with a redirection message for urgent calls.
- Draft emails but using the ‘delay sending’ feature until work hours to avoid immediate responses that you feel obligated to reply to.
- If you work part–time, especially in a team where most are full-time, be super clear about your working hours, re-enforce them regularly. Be helpful but say no, and don’t feel guilty about your shorter week.
Appreciating the Moment
There is no doubt that the pressures and expectations from life in general, from others and that we put upon ourselves means we are in constant flux trying to create a workable balance. You are not always going to get it perfect, and you won’t consistently achieve your ideal plan, but stepping back, pausing, and applying some of these strategies and tactics might go some way to improving the balance you are looking for. Taking this pause in the chaos of present life has another vital benefit. It might allow you to notice a special moment, capture a gem of an idea, or exchange a meaningful word
‘Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment’
Debbie Moore, balancing life as an Executive coach, Company Director, Mother of two, Wife, Daughter, Gardener, Dog owner, Struggling Sourdough Maker.
Patrick McMasters, balancing life as an Executive Coach and Facilitator, Company owner, Father of three girls, Husband, Son, and avid rugby fan.